LE PETIT CHALET
SOUTHWEST HARBOR, MAINE
LE PETIT CHALET
SOUTHWEST HARBOR, MAINE
A context-driven, durable design heals a devastated historic property within Acadia National Park along the west edge of Somes Sound on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Comprehensive stormwater management strategies shape new landforms, resulting in elegant grading and thoughtful drainage solutions. Native, sustainable plant colonies stabilize soils, regenerate habitat, and reveal wildlife patterns. Exquisitely crafted, dry-laid masonry built from locally reclaimed granite gives the garden a unified, established feel. With balance restored, brilliant seasonal drama unfolds.
NOURISHMENT FOR THE SOUL
Mount Desert Island’s bold, granite mountains, maritime spruce-fir forest, and Norwegian-like seven-mile fjord, have romanced tourists for more than a century. By the end of the 1800’s, small summer cottages had grown to the scale of grand, year-round homes, as the encroachment of industrialization invited those with means to migrate from the city for the summer to nourish their souls. Transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson popularized the idea of “nature as salvation––a sobering medicine that anoints the human spirit.”
By the early 20th century, Acadia National Park attracted visitors from all over the world, and European-inspired eclecticism played an important role in shaping the summer architecture of Mount Desert Island. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the romantic Swiss chalet on Fernald Point, where a private residential easement was granted within the boundaries of the Park in 1916. Grand Pre and Le Petit Chalet were built at the base of the dramatic 690-foot peak of Flying Mountain. Sometime during the 1940’s, Le Petit Chalet was moved more than 100’ north and the property was divided into two distinct and separate parcels. The imagery we now associate with Acadia was carefully conceived of and shaped by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., along with landscape architects Charles Eliot, and Beatrix Farrand. Their collaborations produced an incredible network of carriage roads throughout much of the Island; rugged masonry and native plants were skillfully combined, and the enduring, Acadian aesthetic was born.
CONTEXT INFORMED GOALS
The project began in response to a distressed client whose immediate commitment was to restore her devastated property after Hurricane Hanna dramatically altered the parcel in September 2008. Massive spruce trees were toppled like toothpicks, uprooting thick, protective layers of existing vegetation from the landscape. Torrential rains scoured the site to bare gravel, until all that remained was an exposed, depleted, and raw cross-section of the earth that was rapidly eroding into the sea.
Maritime spruce-fir forests in the Downeast region are subject to higher wind and weather stress than inland sites, and disturbances tend to be more frequent and intense. The resulting plant community is primarily successional––dynamic and constantly evolving. Lush carpets of native mosses, lichens, and ferns stabilize and protect the dramatic topography in severe weather, and a bounty of indigenous wildlife inhabits the land and sea.Robust populations of fox, coyote, deer, red squirrels, and chipmunks work tirelessly to shape the Island, and the new garden thrives within these absolutely untamable natural conditions.
The exceptional site presented extraordinary challenges. The home stands less than 75 feet from the Sound, and a number of state and federal conservation and shoreline protection restrictions guided the rehabilitation of the property. As the prime on the project, the submitting firm led multiple sub-consultants, and worked directly with regulatory agencies to guide every step of restoration. The landscape architect’s careful observations of the surrounding context shaped four primary goals:
(1) to develop a site master plan that quickly moved stormwater away from the house;
(2) to stabilize the site and prevent damage from migrating further into the sensitive surroundings;
(3) to regenerate the fragmented vegetation community; and
(4) to craft durable and meaningful outdoor spaces that capture the spirit of Acadia.
The absorbent qualities of the property are revealed through meaningful landscape experiences. Massive above – and below-grade stormwater management systems that frequently handle six-inch-plus torrential rainstorms remain virtually invisible. At the high point of the garden nearly 40 vertical feet above Somes Sound, a 175-foot-long x 4-foot deep x 3-foot wide crushed stone infiltration trench, topped with a dry stream bed form a barrier that collects and disperses runoff from Flying Mountain. Huge volumes of precipitation wash the forest floor, gaining momentum as it drains from the mountainside. The new features protect the house and landscape by slowing water velocity and filtering it through layers of crushed stone and sand. Sediment-free water collects in vegetated infiltration zones before percolating into the sensitive coastal environment. Downspouts, catch basins, and drywells capture precipitation from roofs, planted areas, and surrounding hardscapes, efficiently returning it to the watershed.
A thorough analysis of the surrounding flora and fauna, their patterns, and life cycles informed the installation of a completely indigenous plant palette, and locally sourced plants become essential tools of place making. A regenerative revegetation model based on successional growth principles guides the continued rehabilitation of the previously barren property. Large new swaths of mosses, low-bush blueberry, hayscented fern, wintergreen, and bunchberry quickly establish fibrous root systems that hold soils in place, forming a second line of defense from damaging rains. Vigorous masses of bayberry, high-bush blueberry, clethra, fothergilla, winterberry, sheep laurel, and sweetfern now form dense thickets that colonize the hillside. Multiple sizes and scales of spruce and paper birch are thoughtfully positioned, creating year-round structure and enclosure, protecting spaces from harsh weather.
The new garden evokes a transcendental experience for guests as transitions from domestic to wild spaces are carefully orchestrated along a network of constructed pine-duff paths woven throughout the property. Spaces of varying scale and purpose nestle into the new topography, and carefully composed plant colonies provide multi-seasonal enclosure. The footprint of the house appears purposefully rooted within a thriving habitat and the garden is alive. Lichen-encrusted stone retaining walls define edges, thresholds, and overlooks, and thick slabs of stone embedded in the earth provide gathering terraces and pathways. New masonry exhibits exquisite craftsmanship, as an authentic palette of local reclaimed materials gives the garden a unified, established feel. A spectacular preserved pine tree rises above, creating a brilliant green ceiling over the northeastern portion of the garden. A sitting circle, granite wood-crib, and movable fire bowl situated into a lush new colony of bayberry, winterberry, and fern extends the use of the garden beyond dusk. Two fieldstone walls, one with a bench, and one without, edge a soft patch of lawn, providing memorable places to casually observe activities on Somes Sound.
BEYOND SITE BOUNDARIES
The project carries significance for the Downeast region of Maine and beyond, by preserving important historic, cultural, and environmental artifacts. The lush vegetation blankets newly graded landforms, blending seamlessly into the dynamic forest of Acadia. The rugged materials thrive, and a healthy, balanced ecology stretching beyond the site has returned. Restored wildlife patterns are now evident, and sustainable land management activities guided by organic maintenance practices are introduced.
The National Park Service continues to monitor the easement, and recently praised the restoration for how “nicely the new landscape fits into the surrounding, natural landscape.” The submitting landscape architect views this project as an important example of how careful analysis of existing conditions and context, when coupled with excellent design and careful stewardship, can successfully rehabilitate and preserve irreplaceable scenic, cultural, and historic assets.
2014 Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects
2012 Merit Award from the Boston Society of Landscape Architects
2011 International Gold Award from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers
Collaborators: Gardenform Landscape Construction, William McHenry Architects, Sara Bengur Interiors, Andrew McCullough Engineering, Coastal Irrigation, McEnroe Builders, Victoria MacDonald Fine Gardening, Select Horticulture, Millican Nurseries, AC Parsons Garden Center, Islandscaping Garden Center, Surry Gardens, Moss Acres, Fred’s Wild Sod, MCM Electric, Lucia Lighting, MDI Tree Service, John Goodwin Excavation, Doug Gott & Sons Inc.